Global Warming and the Gulf Stream

Earth Talk
From the Editors of
E/The Environmental Magazine

The Gulf Stream, shown here in yellow and orange moving up the eastern U.S. seaboard, takes warm water from the Pacific Ocean and carries it into the colder North Atlantic, warming up the eastern U.S. and northwestern Europe by about five degrees Celsius (roughly nine degrees Fahrenheit). Melting ice in Greenland and other northern areas could disrupt the system, say some scientists, and plunge Western Europe into a new ice age and bring dramatic climatic changes all around the globe. Photo: Wikipedia.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the issue with the Gulf Stream in relation to global warming? Could it really stop or disappear altogether? If so, what are the ramifications of this?
-- Lynn Eytel, Clark Summit, PA

Part of the Ocean Conveyor Belt—a great river of ocean water that traverses the saltwater sections of the globe—the Gulf Stream stretches from the Gulf of Mexico up the eastern seaboard of the U.S., where it splits, one stream heading for Canada’s Atlantic coast and the other for northern Europe and Greenland. By taking warm water from the equatorial Pacific Ocean and carrying it into the colder North Atlantic, the Gulf Stream warms up the eastern U.S. and northwestern Europe by about five degrees Celsius (roughly nine degrees Fahrenheit), making those regions much more hospitable than they would otherwise be.

Among the greatest fears scientists have about global warming is that it will cause the massive ice fields of Greenland and other locales at the northern end of the Gulf Stream to melt rapidly, sending surges of cold water into the ocean system and interrupting the flow of the Ocean Conveyor Belt. One doomsday scenario is that such an event would stop or disrupt the whole Ocean Conveyor Belt system, plunging Western Europe into a new ice age without the benefit of the warmth delivered by the Gulf Stream. “The possibility exists that a disruption of the Atlantic currents might have implications far beyond a colder northwest Europe, perhaps bringing dramatic climatic changes to the entire planet,” says Bill McGuire, a geophysical hazards professor at University College London’s Benfield Hazard Research Centre.

Computer models simulating ocean-atmosphere climate dynamics indicate that the North Atlantic region would cool between three and five degrees Celsius if Conveyor circulation were totally disrupted. “It would produce winters twice as cold as the worst winters on record in the eastern United States in the past century,” says Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Robert Gagosian.

The slowing of the Gulf Stream has been directly linked with dramatic regional cooling before, says McGuire. “Just 10,000 years ago, during a climatic cold snap known as the Younger Dryas, the current was severely weakened, causing northern European temperatures to fall by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit,” he says. And 10,000 years earlier—at the height of the last ice age when most of northwestern Europe was a frozen wasteland—the Gulf Stream had just two-thirds of the strength it has now.

A less dramatic prediction sees the Gulf Stream slowing down but not stopping entirely, causing the east coast of North America and northwestern Europe to suffer only minor winter temperature dips. And some scientists even put forth the optimistic hypothesis that the cooling effects of a weakened Gulf Stream could actually help offset the higher temperatures otherwise caused by global warming.

To McGuire, these uncertainties underscore that fact that human-induced global warming is “nothing more nor less than a great planetary experiment, many of the outcomes of which we cannot predict.” Whether or not we can trim our addiction to fossil fuels might just be the determining factor in whether global warming wreaks havoc around the world, or just causes us minor annoyances.

University College London’s Benfield Hazard Research Centre
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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